Soul of the New Machine LogoThe last two days I’ve been part of the human rights “Soul of the New Machine” conference in Berkeley, California. I talked about mobile phones, especially about gathering and disseminating information via PDAs and normal mobile phones. Here are my notes for the talk.

Just in Time Data

I’m here to talk to you a little about gathering real-time information from normal people. The organization that I co-founded is Ushahidi, we began last year in the midst of the post-election violence in Kenya to just this. One of our main goals was to create a simple way for ordinary Kenyans to share with the world what was going on to them, or around them.

[History on Ushahidi]

So, as you can see we care a lot about getting information and disseminating information back out to people. For us, it’s about creating simple tools that work. Though we’re technologists, what we think of is the end user and what will work for them.

Macro Level Drivers

There is a huge influx of mobiles into the developing world. Here are just a few statistics on the African market (which is where my expertise lies). Clearly, we’re here doing this panel because of these numbers.

The mobile phone is THE default device (in developing regions of the world).

There are a lot of details that are hard to discuss in just a few minutes, but one that I think needs calling out for most of the developing world is the difference between user-types, accessibility and processes needed when comparing rural and urban areas. The pictures you see here are from Liberia, and there is a stark contrast in the ability to collect information from citizens in each area.

Rural Africa Urban Africa


  • Few towers, limited connectivity
  • Language and literacy
  • Community and social group relationships


  • Better phone availability
  • More Java apps
  • Good connectivity

Simple. Works.

A number of industries use mobile phones and PDAs for data collection, analysis and re-distribution of information. What I think is interesting is learning from products that are already working in the consumer market. What works in these areas that can also apply to human rights? Here are just a couple fields that I think are worth calling out:

Mobile payment systems – the best ones (like Mpesa in Kenya) are working purely off of SMS with person-to-person interaction as intermediaries. Security, trust and individuals are important, just as in human rights.
Fighting counterfeit drugs – Simplicity. A way to use SMS to track and authenticate inventory. A simple solution for a complex problem.
Agricultural markets – A free service for farmers in West Africa to see local agricultural market prices around their region. It enables farmers and traders in agricultural commodities in Africa to conduct business through the use of SMS.

Use what’s in people’s pockets. Use patterns and processes that people are used to doing. What we don’t want to do is create any more barriers to entry than there already is for people to submit information.

Example tools

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a couple of examples.

There are a number of good tools available for human rights groups to work with right now. All of them downloadable, open source and free to use. Depending on needs, different tools work better. You have to think of closed groups vs using the public for information gathering. You have to decide if you want unstructured messages (like we do at Ushahidi), or if structured data is needed, in which case you’ll need an application that can create/use forms, and the corresponding devices that are needed for that purpose.

  • FrontlineSMS: Forms – A simple way to synchronize forms and send data via SMS
  • InSTEDD’s SMS GeoChat – Creating SMS based chat solutions, and mapping them
  • Datadyne’s Episurveyor – Java and PDA forms creation and send/receive tool
  • Cartagen – SMS-based mapping